A selection of some of the best books about cycling adventures and exploring the world by bike.
This instalment of Armchair Travel sets out on a two-wheeled adventure, looking at some of the best books about exploring the world by bicycle. These books capture the beauty and simplicity of a self-propelled adventure, whether you’re planning to take inspiration for your own trip or just travel vicariously and avoid being saddle-sore at the end of the day.
Here are 10 of my favourite books about engaging pedal-power and travelling on two-wheels.
Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle – Dervla Murphy
In 1963, Murphy, the godmother of grand cycle touring expeditions, set out from her home in Ireland in the middle of winter, unsure of what lay ahead, to fulfil a childhood dream. The largest part of the book deals with the journey from Iran to India, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the relationships she builds with the people she meet along the way. The book expands as she develops her skill in writing and becomes more expansive in her journals, setting the course for the rest of her career and several further books on cycle touring. Get it here.
Moods of Future Joys: Around the World by Bike (Part One) – Alastair Humphries
Humphreys, like many before and since, set off through Europe on the way to Asia on a round-the-world cycling expedition. As he approached Istanbul, confidence growing daily, terrorist attacks destroyed the World Trade Centre in New York, and shockwaves rippled around the globe. Rather than enter the turmoil in the Middle East, he turns to the south and heads instead for Cape Town. I particularly like the detail Humphreys includes about his inspiration, and the planning and preparation that goes into such an undertaking. His journey continues in Thunder and Sunshine. Find it here.
Amber, Furs and Cockleshells: Bike Rides with Pilgrims and Merchants – Anne Mustoe
This book contains Mustoe’s accounts of three long-distance bike rides she made tracing historic trading routes and pilgrim trails around Europe and North America: the Amber Route between the Baltic and the Adriatic, a trading route used by the Vikings; the Santa Fe Trail in New Mexico, one of the key routes that opened up the American west to European settlers; and the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim Way of St. James ending in Santiago de Compostela, across southern France and northern Spain. Her writing is effortless, drawing on her surroundings and the historical background of her chosen routes, and the joy of travelling under her own power. Read it here.
Janapar: Love, on a Bike – Tom Allen
After months of planning, twenty-three year old Allen and his two friends set off from their English village to cycle around the world. They experience the physical hardships of life on the road, culture shock, and team squabbles, but also unexpected joys and unanticipated hospitality. So far, so similar to many other stories. But what sets this apart is the keen self-awareness and personal growth Allen shows through his journey. When he falls in love with Tenny, an Iranian-Armenian woman who crosses their track, the expedition is at risk of being derailed as he agonises over affairs of the heart. Get it here.
This Road I Ride: Sometimes it Takes Losing Everything to Find Yourself – Juliana Buhring
With just a few months of preparation and no support system, Buhring set out from Naples, Italy, in 2012, aiming to be the first woman to cycle the globe. Taking 152 days, she crossed four continents and rode over 29,000 km (18,000 miles), setting an official World Record. What makes this achievement all the more remarkable was that Buhring learned to ride a bike as an adult less than a year previously, having grown up within a notorious religious cult, and taken on the challenge to raise awareness of her initiative to help children in similar circumstances. Her lived experiences and philosophical takes on life, in addition to her account of the undertaking make this an outstanding book. Get it here.
Where There’s a Will: Hope, Grief and Endurance in a Cycle Race Across a Continent – Emily Chapell
Twice the distance of the Tour de France, the Transcontinental Race (TCR) is an endurance cycle event in which riders must find their own way, unsupported, across Europe in the shortest time possible. London cycle courier Chapelle documents the incredible mental and physical fatigue of racing in such a challenging event with searing honesty. On her second attempt, she took the women’s title, covering almost 4,000 miles in 13 days and ten hours, sleeping in short snatches when overtaken by exhaustion. A shocking event near the end of the book, and the ripple effects it creates, takes this beyond an account of endurance sport into something much more. Find it here.
Gironimo! Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy – Tim Moor
The 1914 Giro d’Italia has a notorious reputation in the history of cycle racing. Of the eighty-one riders who crossed the start line, only eight completed the trial, enduring a gruelling route, inclement weather conditions, and sabotage, fuelled by a diet of raw eggs and red wine. Having previously tried his hand at retracing the 2000 Tour de France, Cope recreates the event right down to restoring a gearless, wooden-wheeled 1914 road bike, and sourcing authentic period costume to compound the misery. I have a special soft spot for the type of people who resort to such madness. Read it here.
The Ukimwe Road – Dervla Murphy
This is Murphy’s account of her 3,000 mile solo bicycle tour through sub-Saharan Africa in the early 1990s, from Kenya through Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia to Zimbabwe. Ukimwe is Swahili for AIDS, and though aware of the scale of the epidemic in the region, she did not know how much it would come to dominate the experience and every conversation she had. It is her hardest hitting book, with just glimpses of her trademark humour, but one of the most essential reads, with remarkable discussions around the effects of AIDS on communities and countries, on the role of women in society, and missed promises of Western development schemes in Africa. Murphy’s writing is measured in the face of harrowing emotion, but fearless in its reach. Get it here.
Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road – Kate Harris
As a child, Harris read stories of explorers like Marco Polo and Magellan, and dreamed of launching into outer space. While pursuing the steps that might one day take her to Mars, she takes a study break to follow the Silk Road by bicycle with a childhood friend. This account of the expedition probes deeper than many travelogues, beyond just sights and happenings, from musings and meanderings about wider human experiences, to borders and boundaries, political, physical, and personal. She reaches the realisation that an explorer, in any age, is by definition the kind of person who refuses to live between the lines. Find it here.
I’m not sure where I go when I spin wheels for hours on end like that, except into the rapture of doing nothing deeply—although ‘nothing,’ in this case, involves a tantrum of pedal strokes on a burdened bicycle along a euphemism for a highway through the Himalaya.
Kate Harris – Lands of Lost Borders
Signs of Life: To the Ends of the Earth with a Doctor – Stephen Fabes
Emergency doctor Fabes stepped away from his medical studies and hospital training to spend several years cycling around the world. His expeditions take him from London to Cape Town, up the west coast of the Americas, from Melbourne to Mumbai, and from Hong Kong back home to London. On his routes he makes good of his experience, volunteering in humanitarian projects and in remote clinics, and reflects on health, wellbeing, and our shared humanity. A chapter on the moments, days, months after crossing the “finish line” is particularly affecting; how does one resume a normal life after several years doing something out of the ordinary? Get it here.
Which books do you think best capture the feel of a cycling adventure? I’d love to hear your recommendations; let me know what you think in the comments.
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